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Why the polling about Trump’s immigration crackdown is all over the place

Democratic Leaders, Immigrants Call For End To Travel Ban At Supreme Court
Trump’s immigration order sparked massive protests, but how does the public overall feel about it? The answer is complicated.
Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images

On January 31, Reuters released a survey that said 49 percent of Americans approved of President Trump’s executive order on immigration and refugees. Just the day before, Rasmussen, another pollster, found 57 percent of voters supported it. Then on Sunday, CBS News published a poll showing that just 45 percent of the country supported Trump’s executive order and 51 percent opposed it. That was followed by yet another poll from Morning Consult on Wednesday finding that the country approves of the order — by a wide 9-point margin. What’s going on here?

The wide range reflects what pollsters have long known — that small changes in the wording of questions can trigger big differences in survey responses. While the polling seems to send a mixed message, it is clear on at least one point: Trump’s executive order — his decision to cut off immigration from seven Muslim-majority countries for 90 days — is broadly popular with the public overall, particularly when it’s framed as being necessary to combat terrorism.

But the order also sinks in popularity when it's framed as a punitive blow against "refugees” — a potentially crucial distinction for opponents of the ban.

Multiple polls find a majority approval of Trump’s executive order

Trump’s order to ban immigrants temporarily from seven Muslim-majority countries and his halving of refugee levels enjoy support north of 50 percent in multiple surveys, according to Kathy Frankovic, polling director at YouGov.

“In several polls, the temporary immigration ban from seven countries that are majority Muslim has majority support or very close to it,” Frankovic says.

This was reflected in the wording of the Morning Consult/Politico survey, which asked Americans if they support a ban that “prohibits citizens from seven predominantly Muslim countries from entering the US." As the president was eager to point out on Twitter, about 55 percent of the public says it supports that measure — with only 38 percent opposed.

Similar results have surfaced elsewhere. A Reuters/IPSOS poll, for instance, found that 48 percent of Americans back Trump’s order “banning people from seven Muslim majority countries from entering the US,” compared to just 42 percent who opposed it.

Frankovic says that polling support for Trump’s order is unsurprising given Americans’ longstanding concern about both illegal immigration and terrorism. She notes that terrorism has consistently rated as one of the top concerns for Americans overall. (To be clear, the odds of actually being killed by a foreign-born terrorist are vanishingly small, as Vox’s Zack Beauchamp has demonstrated.)

“Historically, if you ask people about illegal immigration and terrorism, you can guess that very high majorities will say it’s a serious problem,” Frankovic said. “And this looks likely to be a reflection of that.”

Trump’s order is more popular when it’s about terrorism than refugees

On the other hand, Americans are much less willing to support Trump’s executive order when it is cast as a restriction on refugees rather than a measure to fight terrorism.

For instance, Rasmussen and CBS News appeared to produce two very different pictures of American public opinion about Trump’s executive order: Rasmussen’s said that 57 percent of the country supported it, and CBS that Americans opposed it by a 6-point margin.

But the two surveys used crucially different wording. Rasmussen asked respondents if they supported a ban on immigrants and refugees from “Syria, Iraq, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan and Yemen” in order to “screen out potential terrorists from coming here.” It does not seem like a coincidence that the poll that showed the most support for Trump’s ban listed the names of seven Muslim-sounding countries and included the phrase “potential terrorists.”

By contrast, the CBS News poll finding broad opposition to Trump’s executive order does not mention the word “terrorist.” Similarly, CBS News found Trump’s executive order became more unpopular when respondents were told that the executive order bans refugees who are “forced to leave their country due to violence or persecution.” In that case, more than half of Americans say they disagree with it.

Americans overwhelmingly oppose discriminating against Muslims in immigration

Polling from YouGov and Reuters/IPSOS found Americans were unwilling to support the real specifics underlying Trump’s executive order.

Reuters, for instance, found a 6-point margin of support for Trump’s executive order. (Its survey asked if the ban on immigration from seven Muslim-majority countries “is necessary to prevent terrorism.”) On questions of terrorism, more than 50 percent of Americans said the executive order makes them “feel more safe,” according to Reuters.

Similarly, YouGov found that the public registers big support for halving the number of refugees, by a 47-26 margin, as well as a wide 48-31 margin of support for the restriction on Muslim-majority countries.

But if you dig a little more deeply into the numbers, both polls also suggested Americans have serious concerns with the concrete effects of Trump’s order:

  • The public believes America should “open our borders to refugees of foreign conflicts,” by a 48 to 42 margin.
  • When they asked respondents whether a temporary ban on refugees was “in keeping with the US’s founding principles,” only 35 percent of Americans told CBS they agreed.
  • Sixty-eight percent said that banning all refugees was not in line with American values.
  • Reuters found that the public rejects the idea that the US should “welcome Christian refugees but not Muslim ones,” by a 57 to 28 margin.
  • YouGov found that a blanket ban on refugees was supported by only 38 percent of the population (with 36 percent opposed).

Of course, nothing about public opinion toward the executive order is immutable. In fact, as Vox’s Matt Yglesias notes, there’s already evidence that the executive order has gotten less popular in the three weeks since it was announced. And the data suggests that by emphasizing its impact on vulnerable refugees and “America’s founding principles,” the order’s opponents could continue to turn the public against it.